Psalm 137:Silent Harps

Friday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

June 26, 2020

(I have not written a past reflection on Matthew 8:1-4 because other feasts have occurred on its past dates. But the story is the same as Luke 5 so that reflection is available here.)

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 137, one of the most tender and yet violent of the psalms. Set during the Babylonian Captivity, the verses express the longing of the Jewish people for their homeland and their freedom.

The composer, thought to be Jeremiah the prophet, captures the poignant desperation of those who have lost everything. In literature and music, the psalm’s ardent emotions have been applied to the shameful enslavements throughout subsequent history — of Jews, Africans, and other devastated peoples. It resounds in the lives of refugee families incarcerated at our borders. Its mournful simplicity echoes a cosmic suffering.

But the prayer can also be a very personal one. It has brought release for the pain of individuals experiencing unwanted separation from someone or something not only beloved, but core to their identity.

By the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the aspens of that land
we hung up our harps…

How could we sing a song of the LORD
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand be forgotten!

Over thirty years ago, I was blessed to spend four months accompanying my mother in the final stages of her terminal illness. It was a time of unexpected benediction and joy for both of us. But it was also a time of deep sadness to the point that I was unable to listen to my precious morning music with which I have always prayed. To do so caused the sadness to rip through me in tears- tears which would have broken my mother’s heart had she seen them. So I hid them by abstaining from music. I hung up my harp. Even after Mom’s death, it took a while for me to tiptoe back into those melodic waters. After it all, I understood more clearly what it meant when the psalmist said, “How can we sing our song in a foreign land?”

Christine Robinson’s transliteration is so perfect to capture this kind of pain, shot with unbearable light.

We were at the end of our rope—
tired, bereaved, despairing.
And they wanted us to sing!
How could we?
How can we sing God’s song in a strange land?
But we will never forget.
We will hold fiercely to our good memories of love.
And we will prevail!

Today, let this magnificent psalm bring you your own global awarenesses and personal memories of how even devastation, when received in faith, can teach and transform us.

Music: Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from the opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi

The opera follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered and subsequently exiled from their homeland by theBabylonian king Nabucco ( Nebuchadnezzar II). The historical events are used as background for a romantic and political plot. The best-known number from the opera is the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”, “Va, pensiero, sull’all dorate”/ lFly, thought, on golden wings”, a chorus that is regularly given an encore in opera houses when performed today.

In Remembrance

mom seaside

Go on…

Now, my mother done her dying,
I come back again to my own life
that I had taken off,
the way you take a coat off
and hang it on a hook behind the door
when seasons change,
sometimes forgetting where it is
until you feel the cold again.

When word that she was ill
fell like a wounded bird
into time’s tranquil pool,
I just ignored the cold.
I walked out into night
to take her hand as she
left quickly for its distant edge.

Through four cold months, we pulled
stars down to light that edge,
blue-hot stars we’d fired
in long years of love.

Family, friends and names that
dozed like dormant flowers in a field
flew up in such a rush of love
around us that November turned to May.

Then, one icy day in January,
I cleared our sidewalk of a heavy snow,
in brief, staccatoed intervals,
lest leaving her too long, the
fragile thread would break
without my benediction.

It was Tuesday, I remember,
but time was caught behind
a wall of silence.  It moved
at half-speed.  Within its womb
that birthed my mother to another life,
I was timeless, still, unborn again.

When my mother died, she did it
just as I had left my life
four months before, with
love and not a glance behind,
no brief regret to do
what faith required her to do.

She drew that thin last breath
from air we shared, as my cheek
laid tenderly on hers, I whispered,
“Go on … and I love you.”

Music: Halleluia – Leonard Chen – played here by:
Violin: Leonardo Barcellos: Cello: Daniel Enache; Guitar: Leonardo Barcellos

Eleanor’s Daughter

( Speaking about my mother in this morning’s reflection  has inclined me to offer a second post today … a reflection I wrote 10 years ago.  I thought some of you might enjoy reading it.)

December 21, 2008

Eleanor’s Daughter

I had been away – busy and incommunicado for several days.  When I got home, the message was the last one on my answering machine.  It lay curled like a wounded kitten and the end of a long line of incidentals.  Mag had died at 101 years of age – the long faithful friend of my grandmother, my mother and me. The manner of her faithfulness to each of our generations had been different: a companion to Grandmom, a guide and confidant to Mom, a distant but vigilant observer and encourager of my life in my mother’s stead after Mom had died.

 When I called back to acknowledge the message, there was only one meaningful way to announce myself:  “This is Eleanor’s daughter.”  Just that said everything – it paid tribute to both Mag’s and my mother’s lives.  It recognized the duty I owed in both their names.  Mag’s daughter said, “We don’t expect you to come… we just wanted you to know.”  My mother’s voice spoke in the silence of my heart – “Of course, you will go.”

So last week, I traveled to the place where I grew up.  There will never be anyplace in life that you know more intimately than the neighborhood of your childhood.  You ran through its alleyways and knew its secret hiding places.  You explored every inch of its terrain and to this day can remember its textures, smells, dangers and promises.  


This past Thursday, I drove into its heart, remembering.  But, as I approached the neighborhood, I saw that its edge had frayed like a tattered fabric.  The industrial and commercial corridor that had hemmed the old neighborhood had disappeared. Abandoned lots had replaced the thriving factories and immigrant-run shops of my youth. The bustling avenues where I had once threaded my shiny Schwinn bike now echoed like empty canyons under my car tires. Loss rose up in my throat like a bitter aftertaste.

But as I neared the church, the fabric began to re-weave.  People still lived in the houses and gathered on the brick pavements.  I saw neighbors walking to the church, as my family had when I was young.  I was to learn that the deep human links that had embraced our parish family had remained unbroken.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
St. Michael Roman Catholic Church | Image: Sarah Barr, St. Michael Parish

It had been nearly fifty years since I had last worshipped in St. Michael’s, but the church of my childhood was perfectly intact.  Not only had it been physically restored to the perfection of its 200-year-old origin, but the descendants of many original families remained or had returned for the funeral.  During the wake, we reconnected with one another, weaving names and histories into a warm swaddling of belonging. 

During the solemn funeral service, many people came to visit me in the silence of my heart: my parents who had taught me to pray, the sisters and priests who had nurtured my call to religious life, my neighbors and friends whose lives had found graceful regeneration each Sunday in this sanctuary.  This place had been the heart of our “village”. It was where we learned and acknowledged that we live life together, not alone – and that the myriad pieces which make up who we are belong in some way to every person who has ever touched us.  Every one of us attending Mag’s funeral was paying honor to that reality.  

 It takes a lifetime to fully learn the office of honor.  I remember as a teenager not wanting to accompany my mother on her many dutiful journeys:  not wanting to visit my old maiden aunts in their very Victorian home, to take a pot of soup to a house in mourning, not knowing what to say at a neighbor’s wake.  I remember my mother’s words to me on such occasions: “We show up. It’s what we do – because it’s all that we can do. It’s an honor to be with someone at these moments of their lives.”

I am old enough now to cherish that role of honor guard.  I have learned its beauty and character from the many – including Mag —  who have kept vigil beside me and my family in the challenges and blessings of life. I went to Mag’s funeral last Thursday privileged to exercise that role in my mother’s name – to assume the duty of our family to “show up”.   

I now know that to stand within duty is to be like a surfer poised inside the huge curl of a powerful wave. It is to ride on an energy that does not belong to you – to open yourself to it with gratitude, awe and trust. It is to know – in an indescribable way – the profound power of God that holds all life together beyond time and beyond burden.

Mom copy




Last Thursday, as at many times of my life, I was proud to be Eleanor’s daughter.  I know she and Mag smiled as I rejoiced in that pride.